Some of the most famous Confederate statues sit smack dab in the U.S. Capitol — and there are no plans to remove them.
The white supremacist rally in Charlottesville last weekend erupted over the removal of a monument to Robert E. Lee, leader of the Confederate army during the Civil War. Lee is among the 10 Confederates whose statues remain in the Capitol, lionizing a slaveholding era and sparking calls this week from some House Democrats to rid the building of their likenesses.
The Capitol’s Confederate statues are part of the National Statuary Hall Collection, created more than 150 years ago as a means to represent two citizens of each state under the dome. Even as multiple other cities follow Charlottesville in pursuing removal of their Confederate monuments, however, only a handful of Democrats have so far called for the statues’ replacement after the violent rally in the Virginia town left one woman dead and injured more than a dozen others.
President Donald Trump on Tuesday reignited the firestorm over his initial equivocal response to the deadly protest when he repeated that the “alt-left” deserves blame for the violence, too. Comparing Lee to the Founding Fathers of the nation that the general tried to secede from, Trump suggested that removing Confederate statues would lead Americans down a slippery slope.
“This week, it’s Robert E. Lee. I notice that Stonewall Jackson’s coming down,” Trump told reporters in New York, referring to a second Confederate general. “I wonder, is it George Washington next week and is it Thomas Jefferson the week after? You really do have to ask yourself, where does it stop?”
But the raging debate over Confederate monuments has yet to envelop the Capitol.
Rep. Bennie Thompson (D-Miss.) on Tuesday did call for lawmakers in both parties “to work with me to ensure the permanent removal of all offensive and despicable Confederate imagery” from the Capitol. But other congressional Democrats have largely stayed out of the fray.
“Confederate memorabilia have no place in this country and especially not in the United States Capitol,” Thompson said in a statement. “These images symbolize a time of racial discrimination and segregation that continues to haunt this country and many African-Americans who still to this day face racism and bigotry.”
House Republicans blocked a vote in 2015 on Thompson’s resolution calling for the removal of Confederate flag imagery from the Capitol after a white supremacist killed nine parishioners at an African-American church in South Carolina. Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) broke from most of his conference last year to support an amendment that bars Confederate flags from Department of Veterans Affairs cemeteries, but neither of those proposals addressed the remaining statues.
Rep. Cedric Richmond (D-La.), chairman of the Congressional Black Caucus, also called for a fresh look at taking the statues out of the Capitol.
“We will never solve America’s race problem if we continue to honor traitors who fought against the United States in order to keep African Americans in chains,” Richmond said in a Monday statement. “By the way, thank God, they lost.”
The remaining Confederate statues hail from nine states: Georgia, Florida, Alabama, West Virginia, Louisiana, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina and Virginia. State legislators are empowered to select replacements, which then must be approved by governors, though Congress could conceivably order the removal of the figures via legislation similar to Thompson’s.
A CBC spokeswoman said by email that the caucus is not currently planning any legislative measures, such as a new bill or letter, that would press for ridding the Capitol of the statues. Any such move would require buy-in from Republican leaders who have not previously supported such broad removal efforts, the spokeswoman added.
Ryan spokesman Doug Andres affirmed Tuesday that House GOP leaders would leave it up to individual states to decide whether to replace Confederate statues: “These are decisions for those states to make,” he said.
Joining the push for the elimination of Confederate imagery on Tuesday was Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-Fla.), who tweeted that her state’s legislators “should call a special session to replace” the state’s statue of Edmund Kirby Smith, a Confederate general. Florida Republican Gov. Rick Scott already has signed a bill that would approve a replacement, but lawmakers are mired in a dispute over whom to select as a successor.
Besides Lee and Smith, the Capitol’s other slaveholder-era statues include Mississippian Jefferson Davis and Georgian Alexander Hamilton Stephens, the president and vice president of the Confederacy, respectively. Stephens opposed secession and counted Abraham Lincoln as a friend.
The Architect of the Capitol can help states select and approve replacement statues. Its role is in accordance with a bill passed 17 years ago that changed the collection’s original authorizing statute to help states choose new figures upon approval from the Joint Committee on the Library of Congress. Guidelines state that statues should depict a U.S. citizen “illustrious for historic renown or for distinguished civic or military services.”
Most offices of senators from the states whose Capitol statues represent Confederates did not return requests for comment by press time on whether they would push for removal. Sen. Thad Cochran’s (R-Miss.) spokesman said he believes the decision should rest with individual states, and Sen. Roger Wicker’s (R-Miss.) spokesman said the lawmaker would not issue a call for the removal of the state’s two statues, both of which depict Confederates.
Sen. Richard Burr (R-N.C.) instigated a successful push for a state law that will ultimately replace the state’s Capitol statue of white supremacist Charles Aycock with a likeness of the Rev. Billy Graham. However, a spokeswoman said she had no additional information on any future push to phase out a second statue that depicts Confederate Zebulon Vance.
Beyond Charlottesville, efforts to take down Confederate statues are underway in Baltimore; Jacksonville, Florida; Lexington, Kentucky; and Memphis, Tennessee. Anti-white-supremacy counterprotesters in Durham, North Carolina, are facing potential criminal penalties for tearing down a Confederate statue in their city Monday, captured on film chanting “No KKK, No Fascist U.S.A.”
Hilary Shelton, director of the NAACP’s Washington bureau, noted in an interview that the negative effect of Confederate imagery goes beyond the statues themselves, but he encouraged a broader conversation about removing symbols of racism from public spaces.
“We strongly oppose these icons of the Confederacy, including the Dixie battle flag, buildings named after Confederate generals who were fighting to preserve slavery and anything else that glorifies the antebellum South,” Shelton said.
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